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How We Conned the Ultimate Con

Spy vs. Spy
How We Conned the Ultimate Con

11/03/06

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The situation was desperate. A child psychologist from Iowa had vanished without a trace in Europe after being kidnapped by her violent, controlling British boyfriend. Our last, best hope of getting her back alive, we realized, was to fool him as cleverly and convincingly as he’d fooled this American woman and a trail of victims over a decade. But it wouldn’t be easy. It had to be just the right plan, carried out just the right way…

Robert Freegard was a master manipulator. Maybe it was his natural guile and charm. Or maybe it was the skills he’d honed selling used cars or tending bar in an English pub. Time after time, he completely fooled people into believing he was an undercover spy or British secret agent. Then, he’d spin tall tale after tall tale of intrigue to lure them deeper into his web—all so he could ultimately control them and talk them and their families into giving him big money.

Once, Freegard held a group of college students under his spell for months, convincing them that they were being hunted by the IRA. He kept them in miserable conditions, controlling their every move, while he persuaded their wealthy families to pay him more than a million dollars over several years for “witness protection.”

British authorities eventually got wind of Freegard and his schemes. But this con man was one slippery character. He had no permanent address, no mail drop, no credit cards, no landline telephone—almost nothing authorities could use to track him.

British investigators later learned that he’d begun dating an American child psychologist in 2001. Freegard convinced his new amour to join him as a spy, spinning a seductive tale that they would live together in a lighthouse off the coast of Scotland and monitor Russian submarines. After she paid handsomely for training, of course.

In time, the relationship turned serious—deadly serious. Freegard threatened to kill the psychologist if she tried to leave him. Soon, she was under his complete control. He had the parents under his sway, too. Freegard fooled them into giving him thousands of dollars for the so-called training and other ruses.

Then, the pair suddenly vanished. British authorities reached out to our assistant Legal Attaché in London—Special Agent Jaclyn Zappacosta—for help in luring Freegard out of hiding. FBI agents in our offices in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sioux City, Iowa—the two offices closest the victim’s divorced parents—got involved, too.

The agents came up with a plan to free the woman from Freegard’s clutches: they’d wait for the missing woman to call her parents and have them ready with bogus stories that would trick Freegard into revealing his location. Conning this clever con man was dangerous—we knew that we couldn’t make a single mistake that would tip our hand or he’d never make contact again and even possibly kill the psychologist.

We carefully coached the parents, going over and over the plans. Eventually, Freegard and the woman made contact with the father. He offered to let Freegard in on a deal to sell specialized sports equipment in Europe. Freegard was interested but wouldn’t give the father an address to send samples.

Now, it was the mother’s turn—and perhaps our last chance. When her daughter and Freegard called again asking for more money, she agreed—but only if she could deliver it in person in London. Freegard took the bait. A meeting was arranged at Heathrow Airport in May 2003. British and FBI agents swooped in; the dazed American woman was saved and Freegard captured at last. The conman was convicted of fraud and kidnapping; it’s estimated that he bilked several families out of $2 million over 10 years.

In the end—as is so often the case these days—it was partnerships that made the difference. It’s a good example of why we’ve set up offices in 57 embassies overseas, so the law enforcement relationships are in place when our countries need them most.

Resources: More international cases